Thank you for the invitation to speak today. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I’d like to begin today by acknowledging the Traditional Owners, the Turrbal and Jagera peoples, on whose land we meet, and pay my respect to their Elders, both past and present.
I’d also like to acknowledge the Executive of the Anzac Day Brisbane Parade Committee, especially:
This is my first address to the committee as Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel.
I want to take this opportunity to commend the committee on your longstanding efforts in organising the Brisbane Anzac Day Parade, the only one in an Australian capital city not organised by the RSL.
And I thank you for the invitation to come and talk about my views on the issues and challenges facing ex-servicemen and women, and Labor’s policies in this area.
As you know we have a significant Defence presence in Brisbane and South East Queensland, and are home to significant number of current and ex-service personnel.
As the Federal Member for Blair for the past 12 years, I’ve had a longstanding relationship with RAAF Base Amberley in my electorate, the largest Air Force base in Australia, and have been proud to advocate for the interests of the many Defence personnel and veterans who live in the region.
The Defence and veterans’ community is a very important part of the fabric of life in Ipswich, as it is in Brisbane.
As the Opposition spokesman for Veterans’ Affairs, I can assure you I’ve been making a point of getting around and meeting as many veterans and ESOs as possible to see what they are doing and hear what they think is best for them, their families and their communities.
Obviously, the issue of veterans’ mental health and suicide rates has been receiving a lot of attention lately – and rightly so.
The high number of veteran suicides is a national shame.
This has led to calls from some for a Royal Commission and we know the Prime Minister is considering this.
As I’ve said before, ultimately, this is a matter for the Government.
If the Government decided to establish a Royal Commission, Labor would support it and we would urge people to cooperate with it.
However, we know there is a range of views among current and ex-service personnel and ESOs.
After all, this is an issue that has been the subject of many reviews and inquiries in recent times, including the Productivity Commission report on the veteran support system, released in July.
The Government has committed to develop a Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy and National Action Plan by the end of the year.
Labor has supported this and I’ve had discussions with the Minister to provide input.
Labor’s view is the Government needs to get on with the job of addressing the many existing reports and inquiries and deliver the Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan as soon as possible.
We also know there are serious problems with Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) and the veteran support system.
In Senate Estimates in October, Labor exposed that the Government has failed to deliver on an election commitment to cut waiting times for claims through the DVA and streamline processes through the new MyService system.
DVA officials revealed that overall waiting times for processing claims have blown out in recent months – and we have seen reports that simply allocating a file was taking up to 75 days!
The Secretary of DVA has admitted the Department has been hit hard by ongoing funding and staffing cuts, which has driven massive outsourcing and casualisation of DVA’s workforce – with around 45 per cent staff now non-permanent APS employees and 26 per cent labour hire contractors.
DVA has had more than 16 per cent of secure jobs cut since the LNP came to power federally in 2013, which has seriously eroded its capacity to deliver services.
This is simply unsustainable!
It’s frustrating for us that this Government has been in office for six years, and is playing catch-up and only now desperately trying to come up with a plan – in its third term!
Be that as it may, we are willing to work with them in a bipartisan way, and with you – as representatives of the veteran community – to do all we can to address important issues like veterans’ health and wellbeing.
This is why Labor took a range of policies in this space to the last election.
For example, we committed $31 million to develop seven veterans’ wellbeing centres across Australia, including in Townsville and Ipswich.
The Government embraced this policy with its six veterans’ wellbeing centres, although the details still remain sketchy.
Interestingly, Ipswich was left off the Government’s list of veteran hubs after they reneged on an earlier announcement at the 2016 election to deliver one there.
I have told the Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel Darren Chester directly that we need additional centres in Ipswich and Brisbane, where we have significant ex-service communities.
I just want to touch briefly on a few hot topics in the portfolio that I’ve received a lot of feedback from veterans on.
Firstly, while the recent PC report had a number of worthy recommendations, it also included a number of recommendations Labor has opposed.
This includes scrapping Gold Cards for dependants, and outsourcing the administration and monitoring of the veteran support system to an independent statutory agency – a Veteran Services Commission.
I know both of these proposals are very unpopular with veterans and I’ve called on the Minister to rule them out.
Regrettably, he has failed to do so, which has only created further anxiety in the veteran community.
Secondly, there are the reviews currently underway into the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) or Special Rate Disability Pension, and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme (DFRDB) commutation.
Labor supported these reviews, but given both were announced just before the election, we questioned the Government’s commitment and suspected it was just another example of them “kicking the can down the road”.
Since then, we have had concerns that the terms of reference of these reviews have not addressed all of the issues raised by veterans and that there has not been adequate consultation.
We know the Prime Minister has received the final TPI review conducted by the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, following an earlier secret KPMG report.
So I’m calling on him to release it and the Government’s response as soon as possible.
The DFRDB inquiry by the Commonwealth Ombudsman is expected to conclude in early December, and again the Government should release this and its response as a priority to provide certainty for scheme members.
This is a Government that seems addicted to secrecy and it has a lot of form.
On the Defence Personnel side of my portfolio, recently we were shocked to hear the Government had decided to abolish the well-respected Defence Reserves Support Council (or DRSC), to essentially be replaced by an in-house Defence-appointed body.
For more than 40 years, the DRSC has played an important role in increasing understanding and support for Reserve service.
This announcement was made late on a Friday afternoon under the cover of another secret KPMG review, so you can see a pattern here.
It turns out DRSC National Council members were only shown the KPMG report on the day of the announcement, as a fait accompli, before effectively being given their marching orders.
This is an absolute disgrace and Minister Chester’s handling of this and treatment of the DRSC has been appalling.
Finally, I know many of you are interested in – and have concerns about – the new Veteran Card.
I know there has been a very mixed response to the card and associated lapel pin among veterans, and I have received a fair amount of negative feedback.
Labor broadly welcomed the recent launch – or relaunch and relaunch again – of the card and discount scheme, which is intended to provide veterans with access to a range of offers and benefits from participating businesses.
But it has taken far too long to roll out and again, we questioned the Morrison Government’s commitment and urgency to deliver it.
The relaunch on 3 November was the third time the Government recycled this since it was first announced in October last year and then again during the election campaign.
At the outset, no businesses were on board and even now, there are few details on how the card will interact with other existing discount schemes, and what advantages the card brings over other programs.
The Government even attached the card to enabling legislation, the Australian Veterans’ Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, which was introduced into the Parliament back in February 2019, only for it to lapse before the election.
After the election, the Bill was reintroduced, and the Government insisted it was a priority, and yet it was only passed on 22 October 2019.
So veterans have had to wait more than a year to see the Veteran Card since it was first announced.
But even then, the Government and DVA have completely bungled the roll-out.
I and other MPs have received numerous complaints from people about the complicated and cumbersome application process.
It turns out veterans need to be a client with DVA first and apply online via DVA’s MyService portal, and also need to have an email address.
They then need to sign up to the Australian Partners Of Defence (APOD) platform and create a membership before they can start accessing discounts.
This is clearly makes it very difficult for many older veterans, who do not access to computers, the internet, or have an email address.
And once you’ve jumped through all these hoops and got your card, many of the discounts being offered are pretty paltry, such as $1 off a $100 supermarket purchase.
Further, a number of veterans in regional areas in my electorate have pointed out that they will not benefit as much as people living in major centres where there are more participating businesses.
As one advocate put it recently, the Veteran Card isn’t what veterans were told it would be – a bona fide recognition program – given it’s not much better than what the general public can get.
Labor genuinely hopes this does not turn out to be the tokenistic policy thought bubble as we feared it would be at the time it was first announced.
Unfortunately, all of these policy and delivery failures just go to show that this is an incompetent and secretive Government that has failed to deliver for veterans, has no plans and no ideas in this area, and simply wants to outsource policy and responsibility to departments and independent agencies.
On a more positive note, the legislation that gave effect to the Veteran Card also delivered the Australian Defence Veterans’ Covenant, which provides a formal recognition of the unique nature of military service and a commitment from the nation to look after veterans and their families.
The Veterans’ Covenant follows Labor’s earlier proposal for a Military Covenant, which was developed in close consultation with the veteran community and modelled on the UK Armed Services Covenant.
While the Covenant is largely symbolic in nature, Labor had hoped that something like the Veteran Card would deliver some practical recognition for veterans.
Make no mistake, symbolic recognition – including through items like lapel pins, as well as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day services – is vitally important.
But we want to see this backed up with tangible benefits, such as better veteran support services when it comes to mental health, suicide prevention, homelessness and aged care.
After all, the best way we can honour the fallen is to look after the living.
In closing, thank you again for the invitation to be here.
I look forward to working with you to deliver better recognition and better outcomes for local veterans in Brisbane and Queensland.